You Lost Me After “Feb”



In honor of both our present month as well as the birthday of our late writer Tom Stern, today we repeat his classic pronunciation article first published on February 3, 2016.

 

Feb-yoo-ary. Febber-ary. Feb-wary. Can’t anyone around here say “feb-roo-ary”?

It’s time to revisit dissimilation, the labored linguistic theory that purports to explain why so many of us don’t say February’s two r’s. The online American Heritage dictionary has the following usage note at “February”: “The loss of the first r in this pronunciation can be accounted for by the phonological process known as dissimilation, by which similar sounds in a word tend to become less similar.”

Translation: the second r in February makes people mispronounce the first r.

My first reaction was that some intellectuals with too much time on their hands had come up with a fancy term for slovenly speech. Isn’t dissimilation merely an erudite synonym for tongue-twister? I’m not quite ready to buy all this “phonological process” business; the simple truth is that people generally are hurried speakers, and saying words like February takes a little extra care.

Here are some other hard-to-enunciate dissimilation words:

Asterisk  The second gets dropped, and we are left with the icky “aster-ick.”

Candidate  People say the first two syllables as if they were saying “Canada.”

Hierarchy  You often hear “high-arky,” with the er slurred. We should aim “higher.”

Prerogative  I bet most people think this word is spelled “perogative,” because that’s typically what you hear. Only careful speakers say the first r: pre-rahg-ative.

Minutiae  Here’s a word no one says right. The traditional pronunciation, believe it or not, is min-OO-she-ee or min-YOO-she-ee. Good luck with that. I’ve never heard anything but “min-oo-sha,” because “sha” is a whole lot easier than saying two long-e syllables, one right after the other

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I’ve put in enough time on this odd little topic to observe that dissimilation has a flip side. I’m calling it “impulsive echoing”: the tendency to irrationally add similar sounds within words, despite their spelling. Check these out:

Ouija board  If you are American, either you or someone you know says “wee-jee.” The standard pronunciation is WEE-ja. How does ja become “jee” unless impulsive echoing is real?

Cummerbund  Look at that spelling and then tell me why so many speakers add a phantom b: “cumber-bund.”

Pundit  I’ve heard seasoned public figures—hello, Hillary Clinton—say “pundint.”

Whirlwind  I’ve also heard veteran TV journalists—hello, Wolf Blitzer—say “world wind.”

Sherbet  That’s how you spell it, all right. What happens when the people who add a second and say “sher-bert” meet the people who drop the first in February?

—Tom Stern

Posted on Wednesday, February 14, 2018, at 8:30 am

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11 Comments on You Lost Me After “Feb”

11 responses to “You Lost Me After “Feb””

  1. Barbara Conte says:

    And let’s not forget “acrost,” as in acrost the street, and one of my favorites: “nucular.”

  2. MJ Lockemy says:

    How does one say the number $200,800?

  3. Michelle O. says:

    Thanks for the lesson, I confess I am guilty of a few.
    A pet peeve of mine: Veterinary and Veteran – most often mispronounced “veTRINary” and “veTRIN” (like nails on a blackboard to me).

    Also, Realtor – often mispronounced “real-a-tor”, which may be influenced by the words “real-e-state.”

  4. Joe R. says:

    The most irritating of all: pronouncing “etc.” as “ek-setera.”

  5. Anne P. says:

    I know that Tom is no longer with us, but I have to add an ultra-picky comment: in the Latin plural, the -ae of minutiae should be min OO shee eye, since the -i and the -ae are different to distinguish between feminine singular (as here) and a masculine plural such as alumni, which is traditionally alumnee.

    Thanks for all you do!

  6. Jack G. says:

    I pronounce it “febuary.” Just because there is an “r” before the “u,” it doesn’t mean that it gets pronounced. I am sure there are more, but I have 3 examples where a word doesn’t get pronounced like it looks:
    How do you pronounce the 4th day of the week? Does anyone say “Wed-nes-day”? We usually say “Wensday,” right?
    How about that New England state, whose capital is Hartford? Does anyone pronounce it “Connect-icut”? Even though there is a “c” there, I’m pretty sure it’s pronounced “Conneticut.”

  7. Becky Moran says:

    Can anyone explain why the folks on TV are saying SH for S. For example SHTREET instead of STREET etc. This is getting to be a very annoying sound and I’d like to know how it started.

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